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How Will They Scam Thee?

Don't click that link! What are you doing opening that attachment?! Did you send that check via registered receipt? Before you throw that away, better shred it. Actually, burn it.

On the phone, online, in the mail, at the store -- wherever you and your wallet turn lurks a potential pickpocket, according to a new government report on fraud.

Last Thursday, the Federal Trade Commission released the top 10 fraud complaints for 2003. Leading the list is identity theft, which accounted for 42% of the 516,000 complaints lodged in 2003, compared to 40% in 2002. Internet auctions (15%), shop-at-home/catalog sales (9%), and the broad Internet services/computer complaints category (6%) are tops on the remaining list of crimes and misdemeanors.

Danger is everywhere! But mostly on the Internet.

According to the report, cons are plugging into the Web to find their prey -- 32% of fraud victims report being scammed after going to a website, and 26% were lured via e-mail. Internet-related fraud (how about a snappier description, like "E-evil"?) accounted for 55% of all complaints, up from 45% in 2002.

The most popular way of bilking consumers was via online auctions. In fact, 48% of those complaining about Internet-related fraud say they were short-changed as bidders. Scams include not getting merchandise or receiving the wrong merchandise, lack of disclosure about the full terms of the sale, and bogus online payment services. Sellers fall victim, too, of dishonest buyers who employ unscrupulous escrow services. (The FTC offers auction safety guidelines on its site.)

Those not trolling around on eBay (Nasdaq: EBAY  ) for collectibles fell victim to old-school cons such as foreign money offers, sweepstakes, phone services, work-at-home plans, timeshare sales, and magazine buyers clubs. (Just scroll through your Spam folder for Exhibit A.) And the report doesn't even go into detail about stock fraud or over-priced coffee.

Crime wave? Or reporting wave?
By far the biggest news is the onslaught of identity theft, which warranted an entire section of the study. According to the FTC report, ID thefts rose from 86,000 in 2001 to about 215,000 in 2003.

The array of assaults includes bank and credit card accounts being compromised, employment-related fraud, loans, rental properties, utilities, cell phones, and government documents being fraudulently attained. Once again, the Internet has made it easier for the crime to be perpetrated: In 58% of complaints, consumers were contacted via email or on a website.

We're certainly living in an era of high-tech crime. So, should we all just unplug the computer and revert to using an abacus to manage our money affairs?

Nah. The crime spike has more to do with evidence gathering than with an alarming upsurge in theft. Reporting and recognition of the crime has gotten a lot better in the past several years. What was once lumped in with general theft reports is now being teased out and tracked as a separate and distinct crime.

The FTC's Consumer Sentinel database consolidates fraud complaints from organizations including the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, The National Consumers League's National Fraud Information Center, Canada's Phonebusters, and Better Business Bureaus. In addition to helping law enforcement agencies share research, leads, and coordinate roundups of the bad guys, consolidated crime reporting giving us a big picture of the problems.

Big picture equals big numbers equals big headlines. "ID Theft Costs Consumers $5 Billion!" Truth be told, crime reporting pays. Boy, do we financial writers love a good scare story. (I freely cop to the charges. Exhibit B: "The 90-Grand Phone Call.")

Watch your wallet
Even if it's not a SARs-level scare financially devastating our nation, ID theft is a big bummer if it happens to you. More than the money, the time spent straightening it out is the biggest headache. Victims spend on average 175 hours and $800 to clear their names. Even then, many don't know if the problem has been completely eradicated until an important financial moment -- like applying for a loan -- goes terribly, terribly wrong.

I found the most useful part of the report was the section that revealed how people discovered they were victims of ID theft: 52% of all ID theft victims sniffed out the rat by monitoring their accounts; one-quarter of victims were alerted to suspicious account activity by their credit card issuer or bank; and 8% of victims applied for credit and were turned down, prompting them to look into the matter where they discovered that bad seeds and ruined their good name in the eyes of lenders.

Like most maladies, preventative measures are much easier than getting vigilant in the aftermath of getting scammed. To save you a few C-Notes and several sleepless nights, review our tips (as well as the FTC's) on how to avoid ID theft. The article includes some immediate actions to take if you do find that some bad guys got hold of your good name.

For a detailed rundown of fraud and identity theft complaints for each state, click on this link. Actually, just to be safe, we'll spell it out for you:

Dayana Yochim, the author of Couples & Cash: How to Handle Money with Your Honey, double locks her door at night, has a big dog, and checks her credit card bill against receipts every month.

Read/Post Comments (2) | Recommend This Article (0)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On October 31, 2013, at 1:38 PM, barbie15fletcher wrote:

    Time shares have always been a bad buy. But for those who really feel they need one I make one recommendation: Never buy from the developer. Always wait for timeshares to appear on the secondary market, usually at half-price. People like you get excited at the new developments and jump right in, only to become disillusioned later and dump the property onto the secondary market, at a loss, for a patient, informed buyer to take advantage of:

  • Report this Comment On April 16, 2014, at 12:02 PM, TereDS wrote:

    Timeshare fraud has been around since the timeshare idea was created, but they increase during poor economy. When times are difficult, timeshare owners are stuck with properties they can´t travel to or even afford. Desperate to recoup some money to pay for bills, they can easily become victims to scams artists pretending to be their timeshare salvation who will take upfront fees -as much as five number figures in some cases- but fail to fulfill their promise:

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